April 16, 2019
2 min read

Survey shows some older adults do not store firearms safely

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Almost a quarter of older adult survey respondents from Washington stored their guns unlocked and loaded, regardless of whether they had memory loss or suicide risk factors, according to a brief research report published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

“Firearm access poses a danger to older persons with cognitive impairment; their families and caregivers; visitors, such as grandchildren; and potentially others,” Erin R. Morgan, MS, University of Washington, and colleagues wrote. “Given that 91% of firearm deaths among older U.S. adults in 2017 resulted among self-inflicted wounds, the well-established relationship between cognitive impairment and depression is particularly concerning in this population.”

The prevalence of household firearm ownership and storage practices among older adults remains largely unknown. Therefore, the researchers examined sociodemographic features, alcohol consumption, mental health, suicide risk factors and confusion/memory loss in adults aged 65 years or older from firearm-owning households and their firearm storage practices using data from the 2016 Washington State Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).

Storage practices were categorized into either: all firearms stored locked and unloaded (the safest option); one or more firearms stored either unlocked and unloaded or locked and loaded; and one or more firearms stored unlocked and loaded (the most harmful option).

Image of Firearm 
Source: Adobe Stock

Of 4,428 older adults included in the analysis, 38.6% reported a firearm in their house, according to the results.

Morgan and colleagues found that older adults from firearm-owning households were more likely to be younger, white, male and married. Of these, 32.5% stored all firearms locked and unloaded whereas 23.5% stored at least one firearm unlocked and loaded. Respondents reporting unlocked and loaded storage were more likely to be male, to be a veteran and to live in a rural area compared with those reporting safer storage.

The investigators also found the prevalence of depression was 17.4% and the prevalence of frequent mental distress was 6.9%. Overall, 12.2% of participants reported memory loss in the last year and 5.6% reported discussing it with a clinician. However, the prevalence of these conditions was not significantly different depending on household firearm ownership. Furthermore, the prevalence of suicide risk factors or memory loss was not significantly different according to firearm storage.

“As ‘red flag’ laws continue to be adopted throughout the country, the potential risk for firearm injury among older adults with memory loss should be considered an important indication,” Morgan and colleagues wrote.

“Some states currently restrict access for persons with mental illness, but few mention dementia,” they continued. “Recently published guidelines provide recommendations on the timing and content of conversations about firearms and suggest that providers include screening questions when seeing persons with dementia. These conversations with older patients could be crucial opportunities to prevent injuries and save lives.” – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: Morgan reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.